Aside from mountain snow sports and soaking in the natural hot springs, Nozawa Onsen has a wonderful understated food scene that remains for the most part untouched by the western world and strongly connected to local traditions. It’s a welcome change from the ever growing presence of fast food we experienced in Tokyo city. In the centre of the village is a hot spring reserved solely for the locals, for boiling vegetables and local delicacies, unfortunately gaijin (foreigners) are not permitted to use the onsen, more so as a safety precaution – the temperature of the water reaches a scalding 90 degrees Celsius! However, we can certainly watch from a safe distance.
Here are a few foodie highlights from the trip as well as the restaurants we visited.
Nozawa Onsen is one town where I’ll happily tell you that there was not one but many best meals. We ate out every night because it was fairly affordable. Each meal was freshly cooked, bursting in rich flavours and texture. While this may appear exaggerated, I cannot highlight enough, how wonderful the food is in rural Japan. Visiting in the winter season I went crazy for the meaty mushrooms and sharp cheese. Derek, he couldn’t walk past a steaming box without purchasing a small oyaki.
The sushi from Hamachozushi definitely stands out for a number of reasons. The main one, eating sushi prepared in under 20 minutes in front of us, I have never experienced this before and returning home I don’t think I’ll ever buy prepackaged sushi again!
We discovered the quaint and small Café Napa around the corner from the village ogama and on first glance it appeared to be someone’s home. We sat inside the café surrounded by vintage kitsch pieces and cute little cat figurines. Our barista made coffee was served on two silver trays. Everything on those little trays were perfectly lined, the teaspoon dead straight and next to the coffee. Supreme coffee.
When in Nozawa, you must
Drink sake, drink the local Mizuo sake. There are three bottles – red label, green label and blue label. The Japanese beverage is brewed using natural spring water and local rice.
Different from home (Perth)
There is something special about dining in a small one room restaurant that can cater for a handful of diners. Do you receive better service, better food? Possibly.
The Onsen Tamago is an egg boiled in the village ogama.
Nozawana is pickled Japanese leaf vegetables.
Onsen manju is a small steamed dumpling filled with red bean jam
Take back home
Two bottles of the locally made sake, wood chops sticks and sushi spices for the kitchen.
Lodge Hakugin on Paradise Slope
This Japanese restaurant is located in the ski park on Paradise slope, easily accessible which was good for me as a beginner skier. To be honest, the thought of eating on the mountain fueled my excitement about skiing even more when the train delivered us to Nozawa Onsen.
Tonkatsu is a popular dish and it is deep fried pork. Also the perfect dish for a famished appetite, worked up from a morning darting around on the slopes. Against the alpine backdrop we drank Asahi beer and ate delicious tonkatsu with steamed white rice, miso broth and cabbage. We talked about how I would manage down the 5km Rinkan Tree run. My first attempt at a snow trail on skis and more about that here.
You, became our regular for coffee, the coffee was okay but we saw a quirky something inside the cafe that had us returning each morning.
The Winter Olympics was held in the Nagano region in 1998 and Nozawa was one of the venues. As you step into Cafe You, you walk into that time period, faded memorabilia posters hang proudly on the walls. The husband and wife team were adorable and so very polite. They wore matching uniforms to the decor. The second time we returned, they recognised our faces and remembered our orders and in the way of customer service that I am used too in Perth, it was impressive. To the right of the store is a small self serve bakery with yummy pastries, the red bean donuts were delicious. More about our visits to Cafe You here.
9519 Toyosato Nozawaonsen-Mura, Nozawaonsen-mura, Shimotakai-gun, Nagano Prefecture 389-2502, Japan
We returned a couple times to this small sushi bar, they offer an English menu and the food is reasonably priced. The best seats are at the bar, watching the sushi master prepare the sushi and sashimi. A real must for any foodie. The sushi is absolutely delicious and starts at 1,000 yen for a set. I wrote a little more about our culinary experience at Hamachozushi and you can read it here. The best sushi I have ever had. Hands down.
Pasta Di Pasta
9534 Toyosato, Shimotakai-gun, Nozawaonsen-mura 389-2502, Nagano Prefecture
Veering off from the main strip in the town centre, we found Pasta Di Pasta in what appeared to be an attic. The Italian restaurant was run by two young guys and the open kitchen was positioned adjacent to the dining tables. The two men knocked around in the tiny kitchen preparing food for an almost full room. We sipped on sake as we ate with great gusto a wonderful Italiano meal. I was obsessed with the local mushrooms and ordered the mushroom pasta. It was topped with shredded nori sheets and sprouts, the dish was divine. Derek went with a pizza and our eyes widened when we saw how big the slices of ham were! The pizza was nicely cooked with delicious mozzarella and a rich tomato sauce base, bravo!
Kaze no le
9494 Toyosato, Shimotakai-gun, Nozawaonsen-mura 389-2502
The amber lighting and low chatting hum of happy diners was an instant attraction of this Italian bistro. We had heard, the chef spent some time in Italy training and were looking forward to trying the menu. The creamy spaghetti carbonara was delicious. The pizza was even better and those big slices of ham along with rich mozzarella and meaty mushrooms, my favourite! While we could have ordered a bottle of wine from the 150 bottles on offer, we were in Japan and drank Shochu (Japanese spirit) instead.
Descending from the mountain we returned to a very quiet town on our very first evening in Nozawa. The lights were on at Wanryu and we stood outside the amber lit restaurant for some time. We knew the red lantern meant the place was open and served drinks but we had no idea what was behind the doors, and so, I gave Derek an encouraging shove towards the door. Most traditional Japanese eateries have privacy doors and it definitely adds to the mystery of the culinary scene. To our immediate surprise it was a ramen eatery!
Ramen is a comforting meal on a cold evening. I ate the pork ramen (850 yen) and Derek the spicy ramen (700 yen). Delicious noodles in a rich broth, my pork was divinely tender and flavoursome. There is a wonderful depth to the flavour of a dish that has been slowly cooked and its unachievable without this method. We happily slurped the noodles loudly because in Japan this is encouraged. The portion size was very generous.
9509 Toyosato Nozawaonsen-Mura, Nozawaonsen-mura, Shimotakai-gun, Nagano Prefecture 389-2502, Japan
This small one room restaurant is run by a husband and wife team, the Daimon family have been making buckwheat soba in the region for many years. What a treat to be able to enjoy food recipes passed down through the generations, now in its 3rd generation. The menu offers a choice between udon and soba noodles, made from the local spring water.
I had the udon noodle served in a soy sauce based broth, topped with a prawn tempura and egg. Very delicious! Derek ate a tempura set which was much larger due to the side of mixed tempura.
Steam box dumplings
The equivalent of street food, steaming wooden boxes stand outside shop fronts all day long and into the evening. Deliciously warm sweet and savory oyaki were our favourite snacks, we adopted a rather naughty holiday routine of eating them before coffee in the morning and before dinner on the way back from the mountains to our accommodation.
Discovering the boxed wagashi was definitely a pleasant surprise and it is a big touristy trade in the town. I went a little crazy buying a couple of beautifully packaged boxes during our stay for after dinner dessert. Sometimes the contents of the box would sway our decision, other times the packaging of the boxes won us over. The stores along the main strip have shelves of different varieties eclairs, biscuits, sponge and the traditional dumplings.
Shinshu – Apple Eclairs with Patisserie Cream
Have you seen our other Nozawa Onsen posts?